The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


What’s A Critic To Do? This!

A few weeks ago, I ran into some former neighbors at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  After an amazing performance by a Paris-based company of some plays by Ionesco, we discussed the CST’s current production of King Lear.  We were all very familiar with the play, and obviously cared a great deal about it.  We expressed dissatisfaction with the production, primarily because we felt that it reduced the majesty of the play and trivialized the enormous emotional impact which any performance of King Lear should attempt to capture.

All of our considerations were based on a deep understanding of the play and a clear-eyed view of what was served up to us during the production.  We all were in cordial agreement that we were very disappointed in the performance. But then my former neighbor said something that struck me as odd.    He expressed satisfaction that we were all of the same mind but said, with great concern  ‘But Chris Jones loved it!’   This was offered up as something else that we needed to puzzle out.

It was an epiphany moment for me.

Why should I care what the theater critic of the Chicago Tribune cares about a performance?  Yes, he sees a lot of theater and he is in a position that makes him an arbiter of opinion, but ultimately, I realized, it is just an opinion as mine was just an opinion, as my former neighbor’s was just an opinion, and so on.

The epiphany was that there is no person that is as exalted, but also as unnecessary, as a critic who writes reviews (film, book, theater, restaurant) for a newspaper or magazine.

Is there a use for a critic? Most definitely: a critic should be a teacher.  A critic should explain how to encounter great works of art. Period.  Personal opinion is largely irrelevant.   Of course, there would be an implicit personal opinion by the choice of what the critic would choose to write about, but that is as far as it should go.

Why was Chris Jones’ opinion so fraught with gravitas for my neighbor? Because Jones’ position has been invested with almost oracular powers.  What is only opinion is viewed as irrefutable fact.

The argument can be made that there are so many films, books, plays, restaurants out there that we need someone to weed through them all and tell us which deserves our attention or which we can safely pass on.  Unfortunately, the comfort that would come from such advice is illusory.   The opinion expressed is a confluence of tastes and prejudices that come from a lifetime of play-watching, moviegoing, food eating, book reading, etc. And this can only be meaningful to the person experiencing them.

Another case could be made that since this person has seen more, read more or eaten more, the mere volume of what he has experienced gives more credence to what he has to say.  This is a false assumption on two counts: 1) it still remains a personal opinion although backed by more material than most of us have at hand, and 2) the scope of the seeing, reading and eating can create a ennui that comes from repetitive activity.  Often a negative review belies a certain bitchiness that arises from boredom.  This can’t be useful to anyone.

Another wrinkle in this whole discussion is the advent of competition in popular culture. American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Iron Chef, all these shows create the illusion that we can know who the best singer, dancer or chef is. What is particularly concerning about this competition, is the humiliation of the loser.

At a recent musical evening I hosted at my apartment, I played a song by Edward Elgar which, to my amazement, had a very hostile reception. One of my younger listeners explained her negative reaction by saying, ‘I prefer Benjamin Britten.’  Well,  she was certainly entitled to that prejudice, but does that explain why she didn’t like the Elgar? Perhaps an explanation of what in Britten appeals to her that she finds lacking in Elgar would have helped to explain her feelings, but without that, it becomes a bout of Rock’em-Sock’em English Composers, which for some reason Elgar lost.   One can’t denigrate one thing because it is not another.  You can say you would prefer listening to Britten, which in her defense is what she said, but you can’t say he is intrinsically better than Elgar, which seemed to be what she was implying.  There is no logic to the statement.

Even widely regarded institutions like the every-ten-years Sight+Sound Magazine poll of the greatest movies of all time should be viewed skeptically.   Citizen Kane occupied the number one spot in every poll from 1962 through 2002.  In 2012, it was knocked out of that spot by Vertigo.  But just what does this mean? Had Vertigo  become better than Citizen Kane between the years 2002 and 2012?   Obviously not.  What does the poll tell us, then? That we are living at a time when critics are more disposed toward Vertigo than to Citizen Kane.  That might tell us something about the times we live in, but it tells us nothing about the independent merits of either film.

So,  what is a critic to do? As I said before, a critic should teach.  You prefer Britten? Fine. Take the time to explain to me the qualities he has. Make a case for it.  But part of your case can’t be that he is ‘better’ that Elgar.  That is your opinion, and that never matters.  Sure, explaining what you think is good about something is also your opinion, but it is your opinion in service of education, and therefore valid.  I also believe it always better to explain why something is good, than to broadcast why you think something is bad.

I may be called hypocritical since not long ago I wrote  a long piece about why I hated Blue Jasmine.  My defense is that this opinion was expressed in the context of a bigger discussion of the crash and burn of Woody Allen’s career as a whole. My other defense is that it is only my opinion, and is being presented as such. Those who are interested in what I have to say can consider it, those who don’t can turn to the next blog.

So, in conclusion, we don’t need opinions, we need instruction.   We don’t need a discussion of John Ford’s westerns being better than Howard Hawks’ westerns, but we need an explanation of why both are great.

I may be naïve, but getting rid of awards, star-ratings and daily reviews may force people to be more engaged in their aesthetic development, and less willing to outsource their opinions and taste to others.

Want an example of what I think is appropriate (and brilliant) criticism?  Read A.C Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy